BEAVER CAFÉ (1192 Queen West, at Dufferin, 416-537-2768) Casual spoon with roomy booths offers all-day breakfast, lunch sandwiches and salads. Simple stuff, but the execution's first-rate. Expect a comfort food dinner card in the fall. Complete meals for $20 per person ($13 at lunch or brunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of plonk. Open daily 8 am to 6 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, three more to washrooms. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Megan Whiten's a smart cookie. After nearly 20 years serving in the resto trenches, she's watched numbers of cafés open and close, all the while learning from others' success and, more importantly, their gaffes for the day when she'd open her own place and do everything just the right way. Beaver, her just-launched breeze-easy boîte, strategically located between the Gladstone and Drake hipster hotels, confirms her conviction. The bright storefront's certainly not the fanciest spot in town, and its short menu of all-day breakfast, sandwiches and salads isn't going to have local foodies in a dither. But look closer and Whiten's attention to detail both on the plate and in the house impresses.
Having lived in this west-side nabe for years, she knows exactly what local residents want in an eatery: reasonably priced grub using quality ingredients served up by an attitude-free staff in a casual, laid-back joint where you're likely to run into friends.
With a career trajectory that's taken her from the original Just Desserts as a teenager to her last stints as manager of Oyster Boy and the Bovine, Whiten also knows where to get the best local supplies: organic bread from Fred's, chocolate croissants from Patachou, old-school Italian meats and cheeses from Pasquale Brothers. It all seems so easy. Wannabe restaurateurs, take note.
For the moment, Beaver only does breakfast and lunch. A comfort food dinner menu starts next month once the basement prep kitchen's finished. But what Whiten and crew - that's another Oyster Boy alum, Catherine Clark, in the small open kitchen on the other side of the stainless-steel-clad lunch counter - already pull off is near perfect.
Why not begin with what may be the best cup of coffee in town, a foam-peaked mellow Segafredo cappuccino ($2.75) properly dusted with cocoa, made in a gleaming Faema espresso machine? Because of the limited facilities, the same coffee maker also cooks the spectacularly grease-free steamed eggs (think poached meets scrambled) that show up piled next to tissue-thin slices of sweet Black Forest ham over toasted organic green-olive baguette ($5.25).
That toast also arrives under sheer slices of prosciutto spread with creamy blue Cambozola cheese and sided with quartered fresh figs and more-than-serviceable mesclun dotted with halved grape tomatoes and doused with a superior balsamic vinaigrette ($6). Here's the salad again next to an open-faced s'wich of delish smoked salmon, whipped cream cheese and tangy capers over Russian black bread ($6.50).
Most order the multiple-choice grilled panini combos ($5.50), a DIY deal that includes one meat (ham, prosciutto or salami), one cheese (chèvre, cheddar, Gorgonzola, Cambozola or Havarti) and two veg (plump roasted red pepper, sun-dried tomato, bottled artichoke hearts, grilled yellow zucchini or baby eggplant). Once assembled, these sizable sandwiches made with rustic buns from Leiria on Dupont then get grilled in a press. Simple but superb. That Portuguese bakery also supplies the tiny custard tarts that sit invitingly under the glass dome of a vintage cake stand next to Beaver's period cash register.
Nearly every week I whine about the decline of the tomato. There are only so many words for deriding the pathetic winter-pale examples that most kitchens send out in salads, even in summer. But the field tomatoes featured in Beaver's Caprese Salad ($6.95) are remarkably ripe and season's-peak fresh, spirally splayed on an oversized plate layered with rich bocconcini and tangy capers, all splashed with good balsamic 'n' olive oil.
Servers are friendly when wanted and informative when needed. A boomer-friendly soundtrack - Jimmy Cliff, Blondie - doesn't interfere with conversation.
Anyone considering opening a restaurant should also check out Beaver's thrifty but stylish decor. Forgoing the ubiquitous Wallpaper look, Whiten invited her business partners (her parents, artists Colette Whiten and Paul Kitts) to create the space. Obviously done on a budget, the room has its own quirky atmosphere: a partially chewed white-bark-covered birch log sits on the half-wall dividing the tall-ceilinged front space from the cranberry-coloured rear raised room. A can of Beaver sardines perches on a retro fridge. Works from the 'rents extensive collection of Canadian art hang on taupe-tinted walls.
Bonus: well-upholstered restaurant critics will approve of the three roomy plywood booths up front that easily accommodate a dozen curmudgeons.
Beaver's name is well chosen. Like the industrious Canadian icon, it gets the dam job done.
ARABESQUE (811 Queen West, at Manning, 416-504-8146) Billing itself as a modern Middle Eastern food experience, this delightful take-away isn't far off the mark: pitas stuffed with grilled meat and veggies, wraps and pastries, perfect for eating on the street. Complete meals for $8 per person, including all taxes and a hot Moroccan mint tea. Open Tuesday to Sunday 11 am to 7 pm. Closed Monday. Unlicensed. Cash only. One step at door, no washrooms. Rating: NNN
while chippy's and clafouti have deservedly been hogging the Queen West culinary spotlight of late, low-key Arabesque is ready to take its star turn. Once the home of Citron's short-lived retail outlet, this tiny take-away has developed its own following since opening a few months back. Not just another god-awful falafel joint, Arabesque jacks up the quality of the Middle Eastern street sandwich several notches. The house version ($2.49) comes in a hummus-spread pita full of lemony ground bean patties and garlicky sour kabese pickles. Arabesque Pizza ($1.99) finds another flatbread cylinder holding minced Lebanese-style kibbeh beef seasoned with pungent za'atar and sharp sumac. Scented with cinnamon and pita-wrapped, grilled chicken kebabs ($3.99) erase all memories of similar gristly mystery meat interpretations found round town.
And unlike those shawarma shacks, Arabesque's sweets and pastries are remarkably fresh due to the high turn-over. Mamoul Tamar ($1.59) are delicious date dumplings bundled in pale pastry flavoured with rosewater. Savouries include spinach (Fatay Aran, 99 cents), goat feta and coriander (Jibneh Baida) and ground beef and sweet red pepper perfumed with allspice (Lahme B'agine, both $1.49).
Despite its name, Blood of the Pigeon ($1.65 small/$1.95 large) has nothing to do with the plasma of urban vermin. Instead, it's very strongly brewed mint tea and a super summer thirst-quencher.